Land for Life in Laos

Multifunctional landscape in Vientiane Province, Laos
Multifunctional landscape in Vientiane Province, Laos. Photo: Michael Epprecht

In recent decades, Laos has undergone strong economic growth and made major progress towards reducing rural poverty. So far, most of its growth has been based on exploitation of natural resources, including massive investments in hydropower, mining, and industrial-scale agricultural monocultures like rubber tree or banana plantations.

Today, its rich natural resource base is quickly being depleted, with once-multifunctional landscapes losing their diversity. Small-scale farmers – still 70% of the population – are particularly threatened by the resource loss and commercial pressures from outside investors. Meanwhile, the pandemic, economic inflation, and climate change impacts like droughts and floods have fuelled a new uptick in poverty rates and worsening inequality, with women bearing the brunt of the latter.

Goals on paper, hurdles on ground

The government of Laos has committed to a socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable growth strategy, including minimization of climate harms. In practice, however, problems implementing this strategy abound. Locally, investors in big agricultural projects still frequently operate with little proper oversight of their ecological or social impacts. Enforcement of protective measures is very inconsistent, such that investors who comply with rules often lose out – due to related costs – compared with those investors who break rules (e.g. unlawful resource extraction or pollution) and profit as a result.

A plantation is being prepared
A plantation is being prepared. Photo: Kaspar Hurni

Moreover, export-oriented land investments, for example in banana or maize, continue to be structured in ways that threaten the livelihoods of local land users. For example, popular contract-farming arrangements often strip farmers of control over agricultural practices and leave them with degraded land once a company’s profit-oriented short-term goals have been met.

Multilevel action for better outcomes

Building on the Lao DECIDE Info and K4D projects (2008–2022), the present project aims to improve the sustainability of land management and governance in Laos by means of enhanced knowledge, capacities, and processes in both government and the private sector that promote quality investments and climate-resilient practices. It strives for three key outcomes:

  1. Government institutions in Laos proactively manage land investments in a more sustainable way, in coordination across sectors and administrative levels, by maintaining and using integrated information bases for taking concrete action.
  2. Policies and practices for increased livelihood securities of local communities and just land management are positively shaped by new scientific knowledge.
  3. Land users apply climate change-resilient, gender sensitive, and socially just land management practices for sustainable rural development and resilient communities.

For the achievement of outcome one, previously developed information tools for inventorying and assessing land investments are being expanded to include analysis and monitoring of contract farming schemes, biodiversity and climate change impacts.

For outcome two, experts are examining the legal frameworks of land investments, the valuation of natural resources, and local demand for human resources in order to find ways of improving relevant laws, compensation/taxation schemes, and employment opportunities for locals.

For outcome three, local communities and agricultural investors are being brought together in multi-stakeholder platforms aimed at ground-level piloting, adoption, and implementation of concrete practices of sustainable land management.

village in Lao PDR
Increased livelihood securities of local communities and just land management are key: village in Lao PDR. Photo: Vong Nanhthavong,

Role of CDE

The project is managed, coordinated, and technically led by CDE, in close collaboration with a range of Lao government partners, selected private-sector actors, commercial farmers, and non-governmental organizations. CDE’s country office in Vientiane manages and maintains the project’s extensive geographic information systems and databases designed to support greater transparency and better decision-making regarding land investments and ecological and social transformations in rural Laos.

CDE researchers based in Bern, together with the team in Laos, are concerned with strengthening the valuation of ecosystem services in Laos and improving the legal and financial framework of land investments to better protect the environment and local livelihoods. Finally, together with the WOCAT network, CDE staff are working to enhance the capacity of national agencies and local actors to implement climate-resilient practices of land use that are also sensitive to gender-based impacts.